When George Street Playhouse presented Christopher Demos-Brown’s "American Son" last year, I said it would rock your foundation. Demos-Brown returns with another “must-see” drama that packs a punch. "American Hero," at George Street through Feb. 25, is riveting, upsetting, provocative and yes, entertaining.
This is the second in what will be a trilogy of plays that explores conflicts within the American psyche. In this production’s program, Demos-Brown answers a question about what drive his plays: “I like when people with vastly different experiences and points of view are forced to confront each other. I like deeply flawed people struggling to be noble.”
In doing so, he seizes on small events that he can dig into and puzzle out for their much wider social impact. In this play, the backdrop is the American military intervention in Iraq. With just four characters, Demos-Brown teases out just what it means to revere a war hero, both for the military, the American public, the celebrated soldier, as well as his platoon and his family.
The hero is Rob (Armand Schultz), an ex-Marine captain who was gravely wounded in a firefight in Iraq. For his actions — jumping on a grenade to protect his comrades — he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Back home in a wheelchair, he is trying to protect and defend what remains of his broken family — his teenage daughter, Shawn (Kally Duling). Rob has resumed civilian life as the owner of a chain of successful small businesses.
However, disruption threatens this hard-won serenity. A former military buddy, Mary (Laiona Michelle), appears unexpectedly on his doorstep. She’s Army, and black and lesbian. She enjoys reefer and defying convention. She’s a person of “vastly different experiences and points of view” from the right-living, God-fearing Catholic Rob.
A boisterous, joyful reunion ensues, with reminiscences of shared times in the field. Mary even wins over the skeptical Shawn, who is emboldened to share her music as the member of an all-girl-band. As the real reason for Mary’s visit gradually unfolds, however, it’s not pretty. The event that won Rob his great honor is for Mary literally life-threatening.
The scene shifts back to the times when Rob is being proposed for the medal. His Marine commanders — a colonel, a general — and a government functionary (each played by John Bolger), all have ulterior motives and agendas of their own. It’s clear that Rob is more a pawn in their own game competing with other military branches and somehow elevating his heroism to a higher plane. America wants a clean, selfless hero to admire. Any extenuating circumstances that would diminish this are to be edited out of the text.
To create the character of Rob, Demos-Brown draws on an experience that made him wonder what it takes to make a public hero. He attended a talk by a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, whose racist comments about Barak Obama went unchallenged by his audience. Having America’s highest honor seemed to make him unassailable. He was in a sense untouchable.
Likewise, Rob is shielded by his celebrity, which he trades on in his business and in the goodwill of his community. The dark side of his heroic deed is kept hidden at all costs. Which is why Mary’s visit turns from rollicking and playful to desperate and accusatory. Their social and racial differences play a part. But in the end, it’s the morally corrupting effect of the medal that is Rob’s undoing.
In one 90-minute act, this explosive play ratchets up the tension to a searing finale that will shock you. Through Demos-Brown’s rich dialogue and frank language, the cast powerfully brings these characters to life. Bolger, who plays at least four different characters (I lost count), appeared in "American Son," the first of the trilogy, which George Street staged last year. As father and daughter, Schultz and Duling play characters whose relationship utterly transforms over the course of the drama. Michelle’s character Mary is both engaging and troubling. She’s the source of the highest humor and of the deepest anguish.
Jason Simms’ set is a marvel of battle-torn remnants that fade in and out of the action as the characters emerge from past to present in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Lighting by Christopher J. Bailey and sound design by Scott Killian punctuate the shattering effects of battle.
George Street has created a space in its cabaret room to reflect on veterans’ experience in a display of letters and commentary gathered from the Center for American War Letters. This display, “Operation Homecoming,” invites you to respond through “A Million Thanks,” a nonprofit organization that supports service members and veterans through letters and donations.
"American Hero" confirms Demos-Brown’s reputation as an important emerging playwright of the uniquely American experience. This is a play that will have you in its grip from beginning to end.
American Hero continues at George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, through Feb. 25. For tickets, go to www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.